Ag Company Executive Says We Must Accomplish More with Less
Agriculture today – both in this nation and worldwide –finds itself at the intersection of global challenges that one way or another will have a major impact on the industry in the years ahead. And one well-known agribusiness firm is staking its future on strategies to help farmers make sure they succeed in that upcoming environment and is partnering with other organizations to get the job done.
The key, according to Michael Doane of the Monsanto Company, is to develop a production agriculture that accomplishes more with less.
According to Doane, Monsanto’s director of agriculture, economics and sustainability, agriculture is facing an increasing demand for its products, upward trends in population and incomes that assure the rising demand will continue, pressures to curtail adverse impacts on the environment, and production constraints caused by the limited availability of production resources and greater competition for them.
Doane cited a number of statistics and trends to support his point, including:
· A world population of more than 9 billion is on the horizon, compared with today’s figure of 6.7 billion.
· Standards of living are rising in many developing countries, a trend that continues to mean greater demand for more and better quality food. As one example, annual demand for corn is expected to be 1.6 billion metric tons by 2050, compared with the current level of some 800 million metric tons.
· Only a comparatively small amount of additional land is available for "responsible" cultivation to achieve higher production.
· Agriculture, already a large user of water, faces increased competition from urban areas for available supplies.
· U.S. agriculture accounts for about 19 percent of the nation’s consumption of fossil fuels at a time when concerns are increasing about the impact of those fuels on climate change.
Monsanto believes agriculture must strive for sustainability, generally defined as development meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. More specifically, the company’s "sustainable yield initiative" has these basic components:
· Helping corn, soybean and cotton farmers attain yields by 2030 double those achieved in 2000.
· Reducing the use of key resources by 1/3 per unit of output over the same period.
· Improving the lives of farmers by making agriculture more productive.
Doane said production increases will be achieved through better plant breeding, advances in biotechnology and improved agronomic systems. And while doubling corn, soybean and cotton yields may seem a lofty goal, current top U.S. corn yields of 442 corn bushels per acre, 154 soybean bushels per acre and 3,718 pounds of cotton per acre show the potential is there. Similarly, progress also is being made in reducing the use of key resources including land, irrigation water and energy.
The key, Doane said, will be to spread to those in other nations the information and practices that make such achievements possible.
Many current trend lines indicate progress made in recent years is on-target for the production gains that are part of the Monsanto initiative.
"Soybean yield increases are the big challenge and we’re running a bit behind in that area. But we’re still optimistic we can reach our goal there, too," Doane stated.
On the climate change issue, Doane said Monsanto believes it’s real, regardless of what’s causing it.
"Climate change will bring different growing conditions but that doesn’t necessarily mean yields will go down," he noted. "But it does mean we’ll need to build products for a changed environment."
Improving the lives of farmers will come through higher yields and improved income, as well as less exposure to pesticides. But the impact will go beyond those directly involved in farming, Doane believed.
"There are more than a billion people still on farms throughout the world, but there are many, many more in rural areas whose livelihood depends on a healthy agriculture," Doane asserted.
The ag economist said Monsanto firmly believes that partnering with other entities promises to be an important factor in reaching the sustainability goal.
"It would be arrogant of us to think Monsanto can do it all," he noted.
Among the organizations that have signed on in support of Monsanto’s goals and strategies are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, conservation and environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the Keystone Center, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.
How will anyone know when agriculture has reached the goal of being sustainable? Doane said the goal is not a fixed endpoint that can be quickly and easily defined. Rather, sustainability amounts to a moving target characterized by dynamic systems that maintain themselves over time.
As for the problems posed by opponents and critics of biotechnology, Doane believes proven achievements in the biotech field in recent years have changed many earlier attitudes.
"We haven’t turned all opponents into cheerleaders, but progress definitely has been made on that front," he said.
Once known as a chemical company, Monsanto has undergone major corporate change that has molded it into a corporation whose only business today is agriculture. Quoting Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant about the company’s current focus, Doane noted, "We succeed when farmers succeed."